Out of the Archives and Onto Your Screens: Crowdsourcing at the Library of Congress


On October 24, 2018, the Library of Congress (LC) launched a new crowdsourcing program at Crowd.loc.gov. The unveiling of this new program corresponds with Librarian of Congress Dr. Carla Hayden’s 5-year Strategic Plan that “puts users first,” and grants increased access to LC’s holdings. This application builds off of previous Library of Congress crowdsourcing applications such as Beyond Words, Roll the Credits, and the 2008 Flickr initiative, The Commons.

So how does it work?

Users are encouraged to transcribe, review, and tag documents grouped together in thematic “campaigns,” posted to the Crowd website. Presently, there are five listed campaigns where users can choose to interact with a variety of sources—from official correspondence to speeches and diaries.

The website tracks the progress of each campaign using a blue bar. This means that in just three months, over 15,000 images of the “Letters to Lincoln” campaign have been transcribed and marked ready for review.

Crowd does not require participants to create a profile to transcribe files, however an account is necessary to review or tag documents.

Here is an example of the transcription portion, using a letter from the “Mary Church Terrell: Advocate for African Americans and Women” campaign.

The website allows multiple volunteers to work on the same page, save partially finished pages, and edit transcriptions of other participants before submitting for review. Options for full screen viewing and zoom help users focus on cursive letters and miniscule punctuation marks. Two buttons at the bottom of the page provide volunteers with “Quick Tips” for transcribing or redirect to the History Hub forum (moderated by LC staff members) for more complicated questions.

So, maybe you’re done transcribing and you’ve decided to review another user’s work. Here’s a 1908 letter from Terrell’s collection that’s ready for review:

On this page, the transcription box is locked until you press buttons to edit or accept the text. Once you accept the reviewed document, a box prompts you to submit tags for identification and organization. Varying perspectives among users are expected to provide diverse subject terms and expand the current Library index for an increasingly accessible database.

Now what happens once you submit the document for final review?

This speech from “Letters to Lincoln” has been completely reviewed and finalized. It will now appear in the campaign with an orange hyperlinked description. Users are still able to view the document; however, no further changes can be made. Upon selecting a finished page, a table lists the percentage of progress and the number of contributors for that page.

Once the entire campaign is reviewed and finalized by LC staff, users can select a link to view the finished product in the official online collection. Maintaining the finished documents within each section of the campaigns permits volunteers to return to their previous work and personally connect to the official Library of Congress collections.

Although a multitude of documents from the “Letters to Lincoln” campaign have already been transcribed and finalized, there are still four more sections waiting to be accessed. Will you shuffle through the William Oland Bourne’s disabled civil war veteran collection, or perhaps get lost in the papers of Clara Barton?

Let’s Get Digital: Theorizing Digital History

If the role of the historian is about interpreting and presenting narratives from the past, then digital history offers countless opportunities to gather and disseminate information at a rate like never before. As current/future professionals in 2019, we are aware of the benefits attached to online engagement (why else would we be taking this class?)—but to fully grasp how we can use digital history for the future, we must understand how the field emerged and what our responsibilities as digital historians entail.

How can one consolidate the nuances of a barely 30-year-old history that changes more rapidly than a preteen’s hair color? Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig meet this challenge head-on in their online, free access Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web, where they present a brief outline of digital history and address the seven qualities and five dangers that we all must face as we enter the field.

The history side of the internet found its footing in early 1990s as a means to share ideas amongst experts in the field. This was largely done through email discussion groups like H-Net. Picture those long chain emails that you receive from your grandparents but replace the cute animal pictures with copies of old documents or syllabus lists.

As the internet gained popularity as a place for sharing ideas, users developed theories regarding its positive and negative functions. In many ways, the seven qualities (Capacity, Accessibility, Flexibility, Diversity, Manipulability, Interactivity, Hyper-textuality) and the five dangers (Quality, Durability, Readability, Passivity, Inaccessibility) interact with and contradict each other. For example, Cohen’s and Rosenzweig’s main argument congregates around historians’ obligation to defend the reputation of the “History Web” against corporations and commercial enterprises. Much like what Rebecca Onion addressed in her article, “Snapshots of History,” websites that post false or sanitized histories permeate our online environment without offering context or supporting evidence (Quality). This content often does not fit into the five reputable historical website genres presented by Cohen and Rosenzweig, (“archives; exhibits, films, scholarship, essays; teaching; discussion; and organizational”), however the popularity of such posts often lists them ahead of more reputable sources (Hyper-textuality).

In the History Manifesto, Jo Guldi and David Armitage view this plague of misinformation as symptomatic of society’s short-term thinking brought on by “data overload.” They argue that historians must return to a long-term study of history in order to actively engage the digital tools and information that have become available over the last few decades. Through wielding this data, Guldi and Armitage believe that historians can begin to remedy the five dangers of the digital age presented by Cohen and Rosenzweig.

When it was published in 2014, the History Manifesto stirred up controversy amongst historians when Guldi and Armitage condemned the popularity of micro-histories and short-term thinking for “killing historical relevance.”[1] According to Guldi and Armitage, politicians and economists abuse data by painting a pro-capitalist, free market interpretation of history; however, historians are in the position to scrutinize statistics for human agency. They claim that only through broader, long-range study will historians reestablish their place as respected arbiters of the past to serve the future.

Both Digital History and the Historian’s Manifesto stress historians’ responsibility as active contributors in shaping internet content and addressing issues rather than leaving them to be exacerbated by commercialization, reductionist opinions, and/or legislators. So, what is the role of a digital historian? What can we do to contribute to a more well-informed future?


[1] Guldi and Armitage, 11.

Notes:

Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, Digital History, Introduction, Ch. 1.

Jo Guldi and David Armitage, The History Manifesto Introduction, 1-14, 88-117.

Rebecca Onion, Snapshots of History: Wildly popular accounts like @HistoryInPics are bad for history, bad for Twitter, and bad for you.


Introducing Haley

Hello, everyone! In case you don’t know—my name is Haley, I’m an Indiana native, and for most of 2018 I sported rainbow hair. These are the 3 key components of my personality.

[End of audio]

Just kidding, there is a fourth, very significant portion of my identity that I’d venture to guess you all share with me—and that is my love for history. Strap in and prepare to witness my origin story.

My first memorable “ah-ha!” history moment hit when I was 16 years old, standing inside the gates of the Dachau concentration camp during a high school summer study trip of Central Europe. It seems rather simple now—that my interest in history came from what now feels sort of like a voyeuristic experience. We came, we saw, and we moved on to the next city. Still, the pain of the past was tangible, and I was hooked with a desire to learn more about the people who suffered and all of the events that led up to the manufacture of those gates. This interest propelled me into declaring a history concentration as soon as I arrived at Manchester University for my undergraduate degree.

It was my sophomore year of undergrad before the next “ah-ha” moment struck. This time I was rooming with a graduate student named Chelsea who’s semester project involved studying visitor responses to exhibit design. She was pursuing a degree in museum education, but during the summer she interned as an archives technician at the Gerald Ford Presidential Museum. Talking with her transformed my perception of archives from a dusty old basement (which is still often true) to an arsenal of stories waiting to be used. Chelsea was the first person who gave me the often-said and very important advice: Volunteer, apply for internships, get as much experience as possible.”

With her encouragement, I began helping out at the campus archives under the guidance of Jeanine—a spitfire Church of the Brethren woman who was passionate about MU presidents and finishing the 20 foot goddess mural on the side of her horse barn. I spent my next two years learning basic arrangement and description practices and playing “Lion King”* with Jeanine’s five year old granddaughter.

Deciding to leave Indiana (and the Midwest in general) was a big step, but one that I felt was necessary not only to receive a unique graduate experience, but to prove to myself that I could re-establish myself in a new place. Enrolling at American and moving to D.C. has been more rewarding than I could have dreamed. Despite my continued interest in becoming an archivist, I decided to study Public History in lieu of a Masters of Library and Information Science (MLIS). After discussing higher education with my mentors, I concluded that a more general degree would offer practical skills for working with museum audiences and then I could simultaneously focus on bolstering my archival experience. While I’ve only got one semester under my belt, I feel like the dedication of our AU professors and the opportunities to connect with other historians is unmatched.

For example, Trevor Owens, the Head of Digital Content Management at the Library of Congress, is teaching our class about how to relate technology and social media to public history. That sixteen year old kid from paragraph three never envisioned that my life could be open to so many possibilities. I’m really looking forward to learning more about the current software that museums and archives are using, and how the general public consumes history through their devices and games. Good luck to us all over the course of this semester. I can’t wait to see what is in store!

*Lion King, also sometimes referred to as “Jungle,” consisted of a five year old’s requests to be lifted into the air like a baby Simba. Rafiki was to be played by an off-the-clock archives intern.